September 06, 2007

Plunge in the dark

I had this essay in the Travel section of Hindustan Times Cafe today (September 6). My title was "Voluble tonight", it got changed to "Plunge in the dark." I prefer mine, but I won't complain ...

Comments welcome.


Blaid stops at an enormous mound of sand. "La-dedans", he says: French for "in there." "C'est vrai?" I ask, "really?" Not just because "there" looks like an unlikely place to enter, but also because that one hyphenated word he says is about three more than Blaid manages in a typical day. The man has positively startled me with this sudden volubility.

Nevertheless, "there" is a dark opening that yawns behind the sand, and "there" is where, unerringly, we go in.

Blaid -- my guide -- and I are in search of underground streams that flow in this northern corner of Madagascar. I read about them in a book I'm carrying, and when I met him in the town of Antsiranana, he promised to help me find one. He thinks there is one in this cave.

And I am eager to believe him. Yes, it is my lifelong, if inexplicable, ambition to swim in one such stream. But more than that, the days we have spent hiking through the forest have left me grimy, though somehow Blaid never looks anything but clean and debonair. Me, I need a bath badly, and what can possibly beat bathing deep underground?

So yes, we go in.

From the mouth of the cave, the mound of sand slopes steeply in. We slither down this mudbank for what seems like forever, the evening sunlight getting steadily dimmer until there is none and we're slithering on our behinds by the beam of my fading torch. (Damn, should have picked up batteries in that last hamlet we trudged through). And still we go, deeper and lower and lower. No sign of a stream, just this endless sandy downward slope.

About when I'm starting to think Blaid has led me into some Madagascar hellhole that I'll never escape, or at least into the wrong cave, I hear something. A soft gurgling at first, then like Smetana's lyrical "The Moldau" it gushes and chirrups and trills louder, almost musically louder. Suddenly we're there, next to this flowing band of water that I can't even see, but that I can hear in a delicious delight of anticipation.

I strip. Tumble gratefully into the icy water. Blaid too.

At least, I think that's him splashing around near me. The doubt arises on our way out. Stomping endlessly up the mudbank in darkness -- my torch has given up the ghost, the effort restores all the grime I've so excitedly washed off -- Blaid informs me that these caves are home to crocodiles. A little detail he had neglected to mention before our swim.

Harmless crocodiles, says Blaid. Blind crocodiles, says Blaid. He is voluble tonight, is Blaid.


Chronicus Skepticus said...

Very nice piece, Dilip.

Yes, Cafe does some very strange things to titles.

Anonymous said...

Lovely. What a cool guy (Bain, that is, not Naresh, though I am sure Naresh is cool too).


Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant that for the post which had Naresh's tribute to your dad.